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New Clause 2 — Registration: notification of multiple registrations

Orders of the Day — Election Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 31st October 2001.

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'(1) In section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (maintenance of registers: annual canvass) there is inserted—

"(5A) The information to be obtained by the use of such a form for the purposes of a canvass in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered."

(2) In section 10A (maintenance of the registers: registration of electors) and in section 13A (alteration of registers) of the 1983 Act there is inserted—

"( ). An application for registration in respect of an address in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered."

(3) Any person knowingly giving false information in response to any requirement of this section is guilty of an offence with liability on summary conviction to—

(a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or

(b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale,

or to both.'.—[Mr. Blunt.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause, as new clause 8, was withdrawn in Committee, following the Minister's welcome statement that he had been influenced by our debate and wanted to give the matter further thought. He said:

"I am coming to the view that there might be some value in including in a canvass return a question such as: 'Have you registered at another address or do you intend to register at another address?' Since we shall be using individual canvass forms rather than household forms, that might have additional value."

He went on to say:

"I give the Committee an undertaking to discuss the issue with my officials and the chief electoral officer and to consult the parties in Northern Ireland, the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, if that is appropriate, so that we have a clear position on Report."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 18 October 2001; c. 126-27.]

If there was consultation with the official Opposition, it did not include me. I waited with hope until Monday evening, the deadline for tabling amendments, to see whether a Government amendment on the matter would appear. Sadly, none did, which is why I retabled the new clause.

I speak with a slight sense of foreboding, because I fear that the Government have not decided to accept the argument. Multiple registration is an extremely important issue. I draw the attention of the House to the Select Committee report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland, which has been the origin of many of the proposals in the Bill. Paragraph 23 says:

"An accurate Register is vital. Without a trustworthy Register, there can be no secure confidence in the electoral system. At present, it is not absolutely clear how reliable the Register is. We do not share the confidence of the Interim Review Report that 'while there may be some scope for minor adjustments to the current system for the registration of electors in Northern Ireland, in actual terms the accuracy of the register is not seriously in question.' On the contrary, in our view the evidence indicates that there may be a serious level of multiple registration, at least in some parts of Northern Ireland."

The Minister will be enormously familiar with that, as he was a member of the Committee and signed up to its report, as did all the other members.

In addition to the Committee's statement, and no doubt influenced by it, there is the experience of the party of Mr. McGrady, which undertook an exercise to identify pairs of people with the same name. The largest concentration found in Britain was 6,000, yet in a constituency in Northern Ireland—presumably Belfast, West—there were 18,000 people with the same name as somebody else. That is a serious ground for suspicion that there may be considerable multiple registration and illegal multiple voting.

There has been no evidence to challenge the Select Committee's conclusion in 1998:

"We acknowledge that registration in more than one place is a useful right for students and others."

We had that debate in Committee, and that was our conclusion, although Mr. Robinson took a different view and thought that any form of multiple registration should be against the law. The Select Committee continued:

"Those who have a legitimate reason to register in two or more places should be allowed to do so, but should be under a duty to indicate that they are doing so and where the other registered addresses are."

In our previous debate, the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East expressed reservations, but on this issue there is cross-community support. I hope that I am not prejudging the issue, but the remarks of the hon. Member for South Down in Committee and the fact that the hon. Members for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) and for Belfast, East have put their names to new clause 2 make it clear that there is such support. I hope that I have correctly interpreted the remarks of the hon. Member for South Down in Committee at column 122.

The Government have an opportunity to reinforce an area in which there is welcome cross-community agreement. Our proposal gained the support of all the parties in Committee other than the Government. As he took the same view in 1998, I hope that the Minister, too, will offer us his support, as he suggested in Committee that he might. I look forward to his response.

If national insurance numbers were used on the register, which is the subject of our next debate, the new clause would not be needed, as we would then have a method whereby the register could be properly tested, but if the Government intend to resist the inclusion of national insurance numbers—which our Committee debate clearly suggested that they would—it becomes extremely important to address the issue by obliging voters to notify if they are registered in more than one place.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

Again, we are liable to repeat the arguments made in Committee, where the Minister said:

"I am coming to the view that there might be some value in including in a canvass return a question such as: 'Have you registered at another address or do you intend to register at another address?'"

The Minister added that, as Mr. Blunt said:

"Since we shall be using individual canvass forms rather than household forms, that might have additional value. If the hon. Member for Reigate is prepared to withdraw his amendment, I shall undertake to consider that possibility between now and Report stage"— that is, tonight. He continued:

"I shall consult with the parties in Northern Ireland, and with the chief electoral officer, and I shall come back with a clear position on Report. I am more persuaded now than I was before I listened to the debate."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 18 October 2001; c. 126.]

I hope that he will be, as we say in Northern Ireland, even more more persuaded after tonight's debate.

I believe that in response to some of my questions in Committee, the Minister suggested that it was a simple administrative matter to pose such a question on either the household or the individual registration form, whichever one we decide to have, and find out whether the person registering has registered at another address or addresses. I went on to suggest for the Minister's consideration that if that were the case, the would-be elector could simply say on the form which of the addresses he proposed to use in the election to which the new register would be germane. That is a simple administrative consideration, concerning the layout of the form. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has been further persuaded since our debate in the fourth sitting of Standing Committee D.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I would oppose the new clause if it took away people's right to choose where to vote, but as it is formulated, it can be regarded only as a matter of common sense. After an election, it would help to work out much more quickly who is who and who has done what. We have already heard the strong rationale for making sure that we can "de-duplicate" potential multiple voters who have used different addresses. I, too, was encouraged that the Minister seemed to share this concern and, as Mr. McGrady said, gave a strong indication in Committee that he saw the sense of what is now being proposed in new clause 2.

We know that the Minister is passionate, as we all are, about getting rid of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. I also know that he, with his commitment to cross- community relations, will accept a good thing when he sees it, even if it originates from the Conservative party. [Interruption.] I could not resist saying that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is especially true if the idea has the support not only of Opposition Members but also of those who sit on the Government Benches. On the assumption that he will accept the amendment as a sensible and not very onerous addition to what we require of voters when they register, I thank him in advance for his good sense.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I join those who have confirmed that there was a consensus within the Committee that requiring people who register to supply that further piece of information was not an onerous hardship to place on anybody. I do not think that it would do any violence to the Bill, or to the Minister, to insert it.

The Minister certainly did not consult me, as has been suggested. I can only assume that that means that he does not require any legislative force—

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I myself signed letters to the leaders of all parties in Northern Ireland, so although I did not consult the hon. Gentleman himself, I wrote to the leader of his party. I know that the post was delivered, because the leader of the Alliance party responded to my letter. That is the only response that I have had.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I shall come to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, if he can contain himself.

My position has not changed from the position that I stated in Committee; it is not conditional on parties in Northern Ireland signing up to it. None the less, I wrote to all the parties in Northern Ireland at the same time.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The House will judge whether that lives up to the expectation of the consultation that we were promised. I am surprised that the Minister could determine who the leader of the Alliance party was in order to send him the letter, so he must be congratulated on that.

The requirement would put little pressure on anybody filling out their registration form, and would supply information that would be useful in the electoral office for determining on the foot of the marked register whether people had voted illegally during an election. That information could also be used for the same purpose as some of us have suggested the national insurance number be used, if it were included as a further mechanism. It would allow us to look into multiple registration and multiple voting with a lot more information to hand.

It is right to say that in Committee I opposed both multiple registration and multiple voting. I did not express the same opposition in the Select Committee, for a reason that I explained in the Standing Committee. I said that I felt that in our proceedings on the Bill we had done much to overcome a number of the existing weaknesses in the system, but that as soon as we strengthened those parts of the system, we could be certain that the purposeful fraudsters would look to see where the new weaknesses were. If they do that, they will be thinking about multiple registration and multiple voting.

If that is the case, the Minister should, at the very least, identify those with multiple registration, because it would be an offence in itself not to fill in the form fully and properly. If the Minister is saying that he is not prepared to include the question on the registration form, I regret that. Is he saying that he is still looking at the issue, and has not ruled it out? He needs to satisfy the House on that issue.

I believe that the registration form should include the question, and I hope that the Minister can go further than he did in his intervention in meeting what seems a legitimate point of concern. It would not drive a coach and horses through the legislation.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I shall not keep the Minister long, but will let him clarify his position. His body language earlier suggested that he would accept the idea, and I hope that he does. I shall simply express our support for the new clause, and say that I do not doubt what the Minister said when he intervened. Had I seen his letter, he would have received a positive response. Where the letter went is an interesting question.

Mr. Robinson said that the fraudsters, balked at one point, would move on to other areas, and he thought that multiple registration was one of those. The fraudsters also move on to entirely false registrations—registering the names of people who do not exist. The next set of amendments contain measures that try to cope with that problem.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford 7:00 pm, 31st October 2001

I am pleased to be able to contribute to this vital debate, and to underline many of the points made by other hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend Mr. Blunt, Mr. Robinson and Mr. Trimble. I thank you, too, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part tonight.

I want to give my broad support to the Bill, but I have a number of specific concerns. After listening to the discussion so far, my greatest worry is the apparent weaknesses in the Bill. In so many areas, there appear to be loopholes and issues that are not being addressed in the way in which I believe most Members in the Chamber this evening would like them to be addressed.

In the past, there has clearly been much electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, and that will continue if checks are not introduced. That is not questioned on either side of the House tonight.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I hesitate to stop the hon. Gentleman, but I wonder if he is making a Third Reading speech on the Bill in general. Is he speaking specifically to new clause 2?

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

Yes, if I may continue, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One of the most significant deficiencies of the Bill is the failure to compel those registering to vote at more than one address to declare that information at the point of registration. The Government are right not to prevent individuals from registering at more than one address. Indeed, in many cases, doing so is necessary. For example, Members of Parliament probably register at their addresses in London and in their constituencies, which is a reasonable thing to do. However, the situation in Northern Ireland needs to be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate mentioned that some 18,000 names are registered twice on the same electoral register in the constituency of Belfast, West. That arouses many suspicions and therefore I hope that the Minister will consider supporting new clause 2.

The situation in Northern Ireland needs tightening up for many reasons, some of which have already been outlined. There is no evidence that simple monitoring alone will solve the problem. The system currently operates on trust and while that is acceptable for the majority of decent, law-abiding citizens who would not dream of trying to defraud the system, it allows for widespread abuse. A declaration from those registering to vote about the number of addresses for which they intend to register would go far in clarifying those who are genuinely registering for multiple addresses and those who are not.

Some may argue that the system would not work, because declarations would be signed only by honest people, and those who sought to pervert the course of democracy would evade making them. Nevertheless, with the right level of efficient and competent administration and a good use of technology, declarations would provide clarity for those who are genuine multiple-address electors, leaving the chief electoral officer and his staff free to monitor and catch offenders. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the situation. The Bill has many holes, but I hope that he will address this specific problem.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I looked forward to Mr. Rosindell revealing his thoughts on the many holes in the Bill, and he is welcome to the debate at this stage. One or two issues were considered in Committee and on Second Reading and, with respect, it is a gross misrepresentation of the Bill to describe it as the hon. Gentleman did.

In Committee, I gave an undertaking to discuss this issue with my officials and the chief electoral officer, to consult the political parties in Northern Ireland and to come back with a clear position on Report. I have not, in the short time since the Committee stage, been able to ascertain the views of all the Northern Ireland political parties, and it is important that I do so. As I said earlier, I wrote to the leaders of all Northern Ireland political parties, as far as I could ascertain them. Whether all those letters have been delivered is not my responsibility, but they were certainly sent and I have received one reply. It is incumbent on me to give the other leaders a reasonable time to respond, and we have not had much time between Committee and Report.

The hon. Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) are owed an apology. The circulation list for the letter was based on my contribution to the Committee on 18 October, recorded at column 126. Column 127, as the hon. Member for Reigate pointed out, includes a reference to the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats. They were not included, due to an administrative error, and for that I apologise. The error will be corrected tomorrow. Thanks to this debate, of course, I know what the Opposition's position is, but I will consult them as I agreed to do.

I am minded to agree with the chief electoral officer that a mandatory question on application to the electoral register, as suggested in new clause 2, would prove a useful tool in tracking multiple registration. However, I will resist the new clause as I do not believe that the penalty is proportionate to the failure to answer the question properly.

Furthermore, on advice, I believe that a question such as, "Have you registered at another address or do you intend to register at another address?" could be put to electors on application to the electoral register by regulation rather than by an amendment to the Bill. Under paragraph 1 of schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, regulations may authorise the chief electoral officer to require persons to give information required for the purpose of his registration duties. Paragraph 13 enables regulations to make it an offence to fail to comply with, or to give false information in pursuance of, any such requisition of the registration officer as is mentioned in paragraph 1. The regulations may set a penalty not to exceed level 3 on the standard scale, which in Northern Ireland is £1,000.

Therefore, it is possible—I am happy to give an undertaking to do so, subject to the consultation with the political parties in Northern Ireland and with the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats—to give the chief electoral officer the power by regulation to ask people if they are registered at another address on their application for electoral registration. Any person knowingly giving false information would be subject to a fine not exceeding £1,000, which is consistent with the penalty that applies to giving false information on other forms.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The Minister gives an undertaking subject to consultation with the political parties. Five of those parties are represented tonight, and hon. Members from three of them represent constituencies in Northern Ireland—and those are the three largest parties wholly committed to democracy in Northern Ireland, which is the subject of the debate. The Minister knows the views of those parties so why cannot he give the assurance in terms now?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Because there are other parties that are not represented in the House. If we are to change the electoral system, we should consult those parties. The hon. Gentleman knows who those parties are and he may not wish to consult one of them but, as a Minister, I have to consult them all. There are at least five other parties. I have written to their leaders, but I have not yet had a reply. Indeed, I have written to the leaders of the political parties represented in the House tonight and I have not had a reply.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The right hon. Gentleman earlier called into question my desire to see this matter through and is now, by implication, calling into question my honesty about the letters I have written. I have evidence that one of the letters received a reply, and that all the letters went out in the same post.

I am not concerned that I have not yet had replies from all the people to whom I wrote, but courtesy requires me to wait and allow them the opportunity to reply to me.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

We must clear this matter up, as hon. Members may have to decide how to vote on the amendment. No one has impugned the Minister's honesty, or the good faith in which he gave that assurance. We accept the apology that he has given to the House, but we are perhaps impugning the efficiency of his Department. We leave it to him to sort that out.

However, we have to draw the conclusion that the Minister is much more conscientious about consulting parties outside the House—a need that he has laboured at length—than about consulting parties in the House. I am sure that he would not want to take up such a perverse position.

If the Minister has not completed consultation with the parties that he has mentioned by the time that the Bill reaches another place, will he assure the House that the Government will not seek to block this amendment, or its equivalent, in the other place? I do not know on what date the Bill will be considered there, but will the Minister assure us that there will be no further obstacle to his issuing a regulation in accordance with the procedure that he has outlined?

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I am partly grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will not have my own honesty impugned, and neither will I allow the efficiency of those who have served this process faithfully and well to be impugned in this House. Those people have worked very efficiently up to now, and that includes the way in which they have serviced requests from other parties on this matter. In fact, all letters were all faxed and posted on 25 October, and in my hand I have a copy of a reply, dated 29 October, that I have received from the leader of one of the parties.

An error was made in regard to the Conservative party. I have accepted responsibility for that, and apologised for it, but that error does not affect my view. The two parties affected by the error are represented in the House and have expressed their opinion on the matter.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

Mr. Davies appears irritated that I am replying to his intervention. I have apologised for the error, but that does not change the fact that I have written to a number of people for their views on this matter. Common courtesy requires that I give them a reasonable time to reply.

I anticipate that in a fortnight from today I shall have had a reasonable time in which to reach an informed decision based on the views of the Northern Ireland political parties. I shall then write to all the parties to which I have written previously—and to the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats—confirming what I intend to do. At the moment, I am minded to introduce the question by regulation. No one has yet advanced an argument as to why I should not do that, and I do not anticipate that such an argument will be advanced.

I am minded to act as I have described, but I have embarked on a process of consultation by letter, and common courtesy requires that I give the people to whom I have written the opportunity to reply.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Clearly, this has not been a shining moment in the way that the matter has been handled by the Minister or his Department. I tabled a new clause in Standing Committee on the matter, and withdrew it when the Minister gave me an undertaking that he would consult me. I regarded that undertaking as an obligation, but I have accepted the Minister's apology in that regard.

However, the Minister also gave the Committee an undertaking that he would be able to clarify the position on Report, yet the letters were not signed out by the Minister's officials—or by the Minister himself—until a week after he gave that undertaking. It is therefore impossible for him to be able to say that his position, following consultation, is now clear. That is not acceptable.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The Minister, from a sedentary position, says that his position is clear. However, it is clear that he has yet to consult and come to a conclusion. That is certainly not the implication to be drawn from what the Minister told Standing Committee D, when he said:

"I give the Committee an undertaking to discuss the issue with my officials and the chief electoral officer and to consult the parties in Northern Ireland, the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, if that is appropriate"—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 18 October 2001; c. 127.]

I thought that the words "if that is appropriate" applied to the Minister's auxiliaries on the Liberal Democrat Benches, rather than to anyone else, but they now seem to apply to everyone.

I wish the debate to return to the co-operative and good humoured mood that has characterised most of our deliberations so far. I hope that the Minister will undertake to ensure that the regulation that he has promised will be formulated and proposed before the Bill is considered in another place. However, if by that time there is no sign that the Government are proposing a regulation that resolves the problem of multiple registration—the Minister has accepted the chief electoral officer's recommendation that there must be registration—we will revisit the matter in another place. I am certain that the support for the measure evident in all parties means that the necessary provision will appear in the Bill. If the Minister wanted to reverse that, he would have to return to this House to do so.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.